Looking out my kitchen window, I see Josefina sitting on the deck with her swollen legs sticking straight out as she combs the hair of one of her many Barbies. Soon she will make them dresses in happy colors of red and blue, and plain calzones (underpants) without lace. Her knees are swollen from bone on bone after walking for 15 years behind Juan without even a suitcase to hold her one dress, un rebozo (a shawl), a pillow, a little box of plates, and babies in her arms. She is smiling and singing with the radio to a romantic mariachi song. In the song, a husband is singing to his wife, reminiscing about their youth and reaffirming his devotion to her.
Her first job, when she was only 13 years old, was in the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe seminary, where she made tortillas, washed clothes, swept, cooked and cleaned for 30 people for one peso every month.
Josefina and I are in my kitchen now, sitting at the table and drinking herbal tea. She tells me that her mother died of dysentery when she was young. Her father gave her little sister away after that to a family who didn’t want her. They made Marienne sleep in the corral with the pigs and the cows because she disgusted them. A tear leaks from Josefina’s proud face as she tells me this. We drink more tea.
Josefina is putting little pink ribbons in the hair she is carefully braiding on one of her Barbies. Josefina’s face is rich with wrinkles from 79 years of laughter, tears, and coraje (courage). She has had her brown skin kissed by the hot Mexican sun, unlike Barbie, who has also never been surrounded by children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, screaming, dancing, fighting, or crying.
El Marido (Her Husband)
I ask her about her wedding day. She looks at me directly with her sharp, brown eyes and tells me that she left her husband dancing at the party and went home with her father. Juan didn’t come to get her. Eight days later, she went to find him. He was living in a tiny room, with only a petate (bedroll), a little corn, a metate (mortar), and a small container of petroleum. She told me she asked him why he didn’t come for her. He turned his head to the wall and said he was waiting for her to come. They had ten children.
Josefina swings Barbie’s stiff arms up into the air while she slips on the latest carefully made pink gingham dress. She tells me about the stiffness in her own arms when she held out a blanket for hours in front of the lean-to by the side of the road where they were living, soaked from a storm, trying to protect her babies. Her arms were aching as they shook, but she had to hold the blanket up to protect her children from the rain. She had to wring out the blanket and hold it up again, rezando a Dios (praying to God) to keep them well. They had moved 40 times already because Juan was never satisfied with where they lived.
Sus Hijos (Her Children)
We are sitting at the kitchen table again looking through the window at the morning glories climbing the fence on the deck. She tells me that they often had no food at all when her children were babies. She barely had milk in her breasts to feed them. She shakes her head in disbelief and anger when she thinks of those times.
Josefina likes the tea I buy her because it has lots of different hierbas in it to calm her nerves.
I look at her kind, brown, wrinkled face across the table from me. She is telling me about her eldest son, Evodio, who surprised her one day with a present. “Mira, Mama, lo que tengo para usted,” (Look mama, what I have for you) he said. “A blonde baby with blue eyes. I found her at the orphanage, and no one wants her.” Carmen became Josefina’s eleventh child. The word got out later that the child was Evodio’s from an affair he was having and that the mother had threatened to abort. He wouldn’t hear of it and promised her that his mother would bring up the baby as if it were her own.
Carmen suffered greatly. The women never accepted her. She was ostracized, ridiculed, and often ignored. Josefina was caught in the middle. She couldn’t throw this little girl out into the street. She had promised Evodio to keep her, but her daughters hardly had enough to eat themselves, let alone share with someone not of their own blood. They resented her blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin, and what they considered to be the doting of their mother. At age 18, Carmen tried to kill herself by swallowing too many pills. “She’s just trying to get attention as usual,” they said.
She tells me she is proud of her children because none of them are drug addicts or in jail. “They all know how to work,” she says.
She smiles, recalling a story about her sons Antonio and Lorenzo when they were little. They would get up early because they were hungry and didn’t want Josefina to have to stretch the food for all 11 children. So they would go from house to house asking for a little taquito. Antonio would do the talking. He had no shame.
Once, when he was 10 years old, his father, Juan, had a guest at the house named Sacramento. Antonio put his hands behind his back and began to dance and dance until Sacramento gave him 20 pesos. He took the money and ran. He bought un burro de queso con un chilito (cheese burrito with chili) and ate it, slowly.
I show her the mangos I just bought at the farmer’s market. We sit together at the table, sipping tea again. She tells me about her son Agustín when he was nine years old. His favorite fruit was mango. She said he and a friend walked down a steep cliff near their house because there was a mango orchard down there. When they got to the bottom, a storm came in and they couldn’t get back. When her son didn’t come back at night, Josefina went to the Red Cross, the Green Cross, and the jail to look for them. She finally called the firemen, who climbed down the cliff to look for them. A farmer had seen them and offered them a barn to sleep in. They slept face down on a bed of cornstalks with their little arms outspread. When they got up in the morning, they noticed that underneath the cornstalks were hundreds of scorpions. Awake all night and sick with worry, Josefina was beside herself. Then suddenly she saw Agustín walking toward her, smiling, carrying a boxful of mangos on his head.
We were laughing this morning when I reminded her about the leather suitcase she found in East L.A. a few years ago. Even though I’ve heard the story before, I ask her to tell me again. I can picture her looking out her kitchen window in the projects near Sears. The streets are filled with old cars, broken glass, graffiti, and mothers with their children. The smells emanating from the apartments are from tamales, enchiladas, pozole, frijoles, salsa, and mole. “So, you saw a suitcase on top of a car,” I prompt her. She tells me that it was there all day. “And it wasn’t on top of a car, it was in the flatbed of a truck.” She said she waited until Carmen came home from school. She thought that if it were still there, then she would ask Carmen to grab it and bring it in. She counseled Carmen to touch it first to see if it didn’t have a dead animal or something inside. Together they put the fine leather suitcase on the floor in the living room and opened it up. Josefina told me that Carmen and she looked at each other then, puzzled. “Mama, it’s only grass!” Carmen said. Together they looked at the bricks of grass in amazement. “Why would anybody do this?” they said to each other. They decided to wait until Antonio came home. He would know what to do. After conferring with three of her sons, they decided it must be marijuana. Antonio sold the suitcase full of grass to a neighbor named Heito. Josefina told me Antonio gave her $200. But, what really made her happiest, she told me, was that she got to keep the leather suitcase.
Sus Hermanos (Her Brothers)
“What about your brothers,” I ask her? She cries again. She tells me her brother Antonio came to visit her after 14 years of absence. When her husband Juan saw him in the kitchen, he said, “Who is this man? You don’t have a brother Antonio! I will not permit him in my house.” He told her that he had to leave. When she told her brother what her husband had said, he asked her to give him her bendición (blessing). He said he thought he might never see her again. And he didn’t.
“Did you have another brother, Josefina?” I ask her. She looks out the kitchen window when I ask her that. Her jaw tightens. She tells me her brother Jose stayed with her and Juan when he was young. She said his job was feeding a neighbor’s cows.
Josefina supports her weight with her hands on the kitchen table and slowly stands up, walks over to the kitchen sink, grabs a pot, and starts to scrub it hard as she tells me that Juan beat Jose with a thick rope because he came home late one day. She turns to me and with clenched teeth says, “I said to him, ‘Hit him until you’re tired, Juan! Beatings don’t cost money. And you haven’t even bought him one camisa (shirt). You aren’t even worthy of a name. You are no one to us!’” She put the pot in the dish drainer and we walked back to the kitchen table. “Do you want me to make you a cup of tea?” I asked her. She nods her head. “Juan beat me after he beat Jose,” she told me. “But my tears were for my brother’s pain.”
Now, Josefina has seven houses where she can stay. Her children pay for her to travel to East Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Denver, or Guadalajara. Her son Rito built her a house with three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a patio in the front where she keeps a dove that sings to her every morning.
We drink more tea. She teaches me how to make pozole, tamales, and enchiladas during the 6 weeks she stays with us. It has taken me 18 years to get up the nerve to ask her to show me how, and 18 years for her to get over her shyness around me to accept that she can teach me something. We laugh at the sink and the stove together. I am thinking I feel more comfortable with my mother-in-law than with my own mother.
Josefina is talking on the phone to her family in Guadalajara. She is telling them that I’m so good to her because I bring her tea. I also love to buy her presents. I bought her a white sweater today. She told me not to do that because her family will be jealous because they haven’t bought her a sweater. Or worse yet, they will want the sweater. My kids say that she’s my little doll. I like to dress her up. If I buy her a pair of shoes, she won’t wear them. She’s too embarrassed to wear something new. She keeps them in a special place in her closet in her house in Guadalajara. She tells me that that is where she has kept all the things I have given her. When my mother passed away, I gave Josefina her shoes. They wore the same size. Exasperated, I say, “But Josefina, guarding them in the closet doesn’t make any sense. You’re supposed to enjoy them.” She laughs her easy laugh, covering her mouth with her hand and tells me that she doesn’t want to get them dirty. She’ll save them for a special occasion. “What special occasion? Josefina, you don’t even like to go to bodas (weddings) or quinceañeras (birthday celebration for a young girl of 15) any more.” She sits back in her chair, laughs again and says, “It’s true, isn’t it.”
Josefina tells me that a house without children is a sad house. Josefina loves to hear the television blasting, the radio playing mariachi music and romantic love songs, children crying, screaming, dancing, playing “barajas” (cards) and sucking on “paletas” (popsicles) that are dripping down their square chins.
Barbie’s black high tacones (heels) need adjusting. Josefina is tugging on them and remembering how she worried about her children walking descalzos (barefoot) in the wet dirt. They would always get fevers and sometimes get anginas (swollen glands). Josefina lifts up the blue dress with flowers on it that she just finished making for one of her Barbies.
She is angry when she thinks of the people in the market in Guadalajara where she will sell her Barbies. She tells me that they lift up the dresses and look to see if the Barbies are wearing the original calzones (underpants) with elastic and lace. She says that half the time they get smudge marks on the dresses and then just throw the Barbies down on the ground if the calzones aren’t original. She told me she just sews normal panties. “Why does it matter if the underwear is fancy or not?” she asks me. Still, she has enough tela (cloth) now to make a thousand dresses for the 50 Barbies that her son Jorge found for her at the flea market. She can sell them for 45 pesos each.
It’s Sunday and I’m looking out my kitchen window at a big lump under a blanket on the swing. It is Josefina. She sleeps as long as my cats.
Now she hoists herself up to sitting, turns on the radio and begins to sing softly. She has a blue rebozo (shawl) wrapped around her shoulders and is wearing the sunhat I gave her yesterday. She will leave us today at 3 p.m. and take the Amtrak to Los Angeles. She is surrounded by four suitcases, three of which are entirely full of Barbies.